The most remarkable facet to the legend of Barry, the famed Superdog of Switzerland, isn’t that he saved 40 human lives during his twelve-year career as a rescue dog in the Swiss Alps. No, those are just the facts.
The truly startling thing about Barry, if you stop to think about it, is that it takes some trick of the mind to even doubt his heroism. Such is the nobility and bravery Saint Bernards exude. They’re like masked men of the night, rocking little onesies and rubber capes: You believe in them utterly. Maybe more so for their apparent goofiness. For one to perform such courageous acts, it only seems a matter of putting them in harm’s way.
Barry was bred around 1800 at the Great St. Bernard Pass, a route in the Western Alps connecting Switzerland to Italy. Rescue dogs had been used at the pass for more than a century. But Barry and his generation came at the end of the line for the classic breed. Around 1816, a series of avalanches killed a large number of rescue dogs along the route. When the surviving dogs were bred with Newfoundlands, their offspring were more vulnerable to the Arctic chill than their forebears and much of the breed’s strength as a rescuer was lost. That Barry was one of the last of this breed might explain the endurance of his legend.
Barry’s story survives for other, more typical reasons. There has always been a steady stream of novels, poems, and Disney movies to keep his name alive for those of us in search of a heart-tug. Because the early history of the Saint Bernard was written by monks, a sheen of Christian virtue has settled atop even some of the most secular retellings of Barry’s story — which is fine. But it shouldn’t obscure the plain fact that selflessness is hardwired into many canines. This is not some state of grace they struggle to find, all the while spinning cryptic yarns about the glory of its attainment.
Barry saved 40 lives throughout his career because it was simply the thing that had to be done at the time. It was an impulse; quite literally what he was born to do. Which makes it more, not less, remarkable. He intuited his purpose, just as we do when we know to love our children.
But maybe the biggest reason Barry’s legend sticks in our brains is the indelible image left by his most famous rescue. The picture is captured in one of several drawings that have been reprinted in books since the nineteenth century. They show an unconscious child — arms wrapped around Barry’s neck, feet dangling — being carried to the safety of a mountain hospice. It doesn’t matter how this rescue is drawn. You could render it in puffy paint and sausages. It will always be a beautiful symbol of the union shared by the protector and the protected.
But why do these images leave such a mark? My theory? It’s difficult to look at any of the drawings of Barry’s crowning achievement and not immediately identify at once with both the child and Barry. Like the child, we want to sleep through life unaware of the benevolent forces we feel entitled to guide us. Like Barry, we want to be that force for someone else.
These drawings are perfect pictures for expressing the idea of family and our unavoidable responsibility to others. They say love is a feeling we mull over and fight against and eventually accept only to sometimes let go of. But true love is something else. It’s an action, and so much more valuable for the haste with which we are often forced to carry it out.